ACC Airmen performing space mission in Australia celebrate 40 years

  • Published
  • By Paul Shirk
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs

The Learmonth Solar Observatory celebrated its 40th anniversary April 27, 2019, at Learmonth, Western Australia, giving solar immersion briefings at the facility and holding a partnership barbecue.

The observatory is operated jointly by 2nd Weather Squadron’s Detachment 1 and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s Space Weather Services.

“Learmonth Solar Observatory is one of the few places that I’ve heard of whose continuing mission has not really changed in 40 years,” said Master Sgt. Cassandra Denton, Detachment 1 NCO in charge of Solar Electro-Optical Network maintenance. “Major commands changed, but the day-to-day mission of being Sun Spies has not.”

Learmonth is one of five solar observatories around the world maintained by the 2nd WS. With locations at Learmonth, Australia; San Vito, Italy; Hamilton, Massachusetts, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and Kaena Point, Hawaii; each observatory is positioned to keep the sun in view as the Earth turns. Their collective mission is to provide timely space situational awareness by observing and reporting space weather phenomena as well as its relevance to communications and other Defense Department space-based and Earth-based missions.

The observatory was established by Australia and the United States in 1977 and began operations in 1979. The site was chosen for its high number of clear sky days throughout the year, global location and relatively low level of radio frequency interference.

The staff monitor the Sun for emissions including solar winds, solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other activity that can cause damaging effects to Earth’s infrastructure, space assets, remote piloted aircraft links and GPS satellites, among others. A combination of optical and radio telescopes are used in addition to other sensors to ensure no activity is missed.

“As the world becomes more digitalized, the more we need to consider what the Sun is doing as it can have a massive impact on our daily lives,” said Tech. Sgt. Mellisa Lively, Detachment 1 NCO in charge of Radio Solar Telescope Network. “One example that nearly everyone uses now is GPS; solar activity can affect GPS accuracy.”

The importance of space has led to an increasing number of space missions in the area, including the C-Band Space Surveillance Radar System and the Space Surveillance Telescope at Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt in nearby Exmouth. Those systems track man-made objects and orbital debris.

The American/Australian partnership goes beyond the observing mission. The observatory’s anniversary coincides with Australia’s annual observance of ANZAC Day, which marks Australia and New Zealand’s entry into World War I. American members of the observatory regularly participate in the ceremonies.

“ANZAC Day is recognized every year on April 25 and marks the first major military action fought by Australia and New Zealand during World War I at Gallipoli,” said Master Sgt. Kasie Pond, Detachment 1 chief. “It recognizes the 26,111 Australian casualties at Gallipoli and the thousands in the battles that followed. Additionally, ANZAC Day is for remembering those who have or are currently serving.”

Pond added that the ANZAC Day is very similar to a mixture of Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day and the 4th of July. American participation in the ceremonies is unique to Learmonth.

“This is the only location in Australia where an American military officer may give the ANZAC address,” said Capt. Ustem Nu, Detachment 1 commander “It’s tied to the long standing U.S. military presence in Exmouth, dating back to World War II with the U.S. Navy and now with the U.S. Air Force. Both the Pilbara Army Regiment and the Royal Australian Air Force take a step back so that the American military commander can give the address. People around Australia, especially in Exmouth, are very passionate about remembering the sacrifices of those who went to war. Many veterans wear their ribbons during memorial events like ANZAC Day.”